When the sociologist Timothy Nelson asked low-income men who didn’t live with their children what the ideal father was like, eight of them spontaneously mentioned the same man: Ward Cleaver, the dad from Leave It to Beaver. That might make sense if Nelson’s interviews had taken place in the 1950s-60s, when the show aired; but these men were interviewed in the late 2000s. Why did they hark back to a man old enough to be their own grandfather?
Maybe it is because the 1950s were the time when the Ward-and-June family model was most available to working-class men and women. In Labor’s Love Lost, Andrew J. Cherlin, professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins, labels the period from the end of World War II to the 1970s as “the peak years” for the working-class family. During these years, income inequality was low and the “marriage gap”—the difference between marriage rates for working-class and upper- or middle-class adults—was narrow.
Today, the marriage gap is wider than it’s ever been. “It is now unusual for non--college--graduates to have all of their children within marriage,” Cherlin notes. Rich people still live like the Cleavers, in homes anchored in the institution of marriage, but low-income families are built around the much shakier quasi-institutions of cohabitation and single parenting. And middle-class families are starting to look more like the poor than the rich.
Cherlin uses a striking metaphor: casualization. This term describes the shift to temporary, often contractless or off-the-books labor, “stop-gap jobs” rather than “career jobs.” Cherlin argues that the working-class family has also been casualized.
Instead of lifelong marriage, low-income and less-educated men and women enter into casual relationships that quickly become sexual. When the woman becomes pregnant, many couples pledge to stay together, and some may even marry; but their relationships don’t last. Partners cycle in and out of children’s lives.
Just as the solidarity provided by union membership has largely vanished from the workplace, the solidarity provided by marriage and extended-family networks is vanishing from the home. Cherlin even suggests that the decline in non-college-educated people’s church membership represents a “casualization of religious belief,” in which individualized spirituality replaces the institutions and obligations that once structured working-class religious life.
Cherlin’s historical grounding and willingness to listen to actual working-class and less-educated people are the sources of this book’s strongest points. And he explains that this is not the first time Americans have experienced a wide (and widening) marriage gap; it’s actually the second time.
During the Gilded Age, the marriage gap widened as income inequality grew. But Cherlin notes that the more conservative sexual culture of the late-19th century meant that Mark Twain’s contemporaries were much less likely than we are to cohabit and to enter consecutive, fleeting sexual alliances before marriage. So their marriage gap didn’t create nearly as big a class of fatherless, or intermittently fathered, children. Economic upheaval and cultural change have reinforced one another.
Cherlin also finds that, in every age, the working class struggles to adopt the shifting mores of the upper classes. Upper-class norms regarding motherhood, parenting, marriage, and personal identity all “trickle down” to people who lack the economic resources to make such norms work for them. In an earlier era, for example, working-class men often wanted their wives to stay home, even when that breadwinner/homemaker model damaged the family’s financial prospects.
Today, the same dynamic plays out with very different upper-class mores. Across the class spectrum, Americans believe that marriage is the “capstone,” not the “cornerstone,” of a good life: It is the reward for material success and personal stability. It’s the last item on life’s to-do list. To marry before you’re financially and emotionally stable is considered irresponsible, and marrying “too young” is judged harshly in many communities.
The capstone ideal works for the rich. It doesn’t work so well for the poor, who often long for marriage—and value it highly—but feel that it’s out of their reach. And across the class spectrum, a new ideal of the “expressive self” is taking hold. This ideal self is openly emotional rather than stoic, favors autonomy over obedience, and focuses on building (or repairing) personal identity rather than entering pre-existing social roles.